If you have type 2 diabetes, or are at high risk for the disease, you know that soda, candy, and doughnuts won’t exactly do you any favors. That’s because eating too many of these sugar-loaded refined carbs over time can lead to consistently elevated blood sugar levels and insulin resistance—which spells serious damage for your kidneys, eyes, and nerves, and heart.
But avoiding long-term complications of this disease is about more than forgoing blood-sugar spiking foods, says Amy Hess Fischl, RDN, a registered dietitian and diabetes educator at the University of Chicago Diabetes Center. In addition to carb control, people with diabetes should be eating foods that lower high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and excess weight—some of the triggers that likely contributed to diabetes in the first place.
So, which foods can you feel good about? As a general guide, those rich in potassium, calcium, fiber, magnesium, and vitamins A, C, and E, and fiber are good choices, says Fischl. Even fats can be good, as long as they’re healthy fats and portion size is in check.
Here are some of Fischl’s top picks—and what you’re better off skipping.
When it comes to diabetes, not all carbs are created equal. Whole grains—whole grain bread, quinoa, and bran, among others—unlike their non-whole counterparts, are fiber-rich, which actually slows digestion and slows how quickly carbs get turned into the glucose, helping prevent blood sugar spikes. Plus, the fiber from whole grains will also help keep you full longer, and some whole grains—pearled barley and oatmeal—also deliver potassium. The bottom line: whole grains (in appropriate portions) don’t affect blood sugars as drastically as other carbs.
Salmon is packed with omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to help lower the risk of heart disease, as well as have beneficial effects on diabetes risk factors such as inflammation and high blood pressure. Guidelines from the American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommend eating at least two servings of fish rich in omega-3s a week. Not into salmon? Try sardines, mackerel, or herring. Bonus: these fish are all rich in protein, which helps keep you full and prevents blood sugar spikes.
Nuts—Eat (in moderation)!
Nuts are packed with fiber and magnesium—and in addition to protein, they’re full of healthy, unsaturated fats, which will help you feel full longer. A small handful added to a salad or bowl of cereal or as a snack between meals can help you avoid overeating (or over-snacking) by keeping blood sugar levels steady. Plus nuts like walnuts and flaxseeds have omega-3s, too. Just watch portion size—the calories from a few extra almonds add up quickly.
Surprised to see a potato on the list? Rest assured, sweet potatoes deliver vitamin A and fiber, and the carbs in these spuds don’t impact the blood sugar as quickly as regular white potatoes do. That means they’re a great pick for people with diabetes to help keep blood sugar levels steady—as long as you’re sticking to an appropriate portion size. Consider topping them with chopped walnuts for even more perks.
For people with diabetes, breakfast really is the most important meal of the day. A recent small study of adults with type 2 diabetes found that those who ate breakfast experienced less of a blood sugar spike after subsequent meals compared to those who skipped breakfast. Stable blood sugar means fewer cravings, which can help you avoid overeating and upping your risk of high cholesterol, blood pressure, and weight gain. Pick a morning meal with a balance of fiber, protein, and healthy fats to keep you full until lunch like Greek yogurt with berries and nuts, or a whole grain English muffin with peanut butter and fresh fruit.
New research suggests that ginger could help keep blood sugar stable. A recent study found that in a group of 33 adults with non-insulin dependent diabetes taking a ginger pill (equivalent to ¼ tsp ginger root) daily for 12 weeks improved average blood sugar levels compared to 30 diabetic adults taking a placebo. Be wary if you’re taking blood-thinning medications though—the study authors note ginger may interact with the meds (check with your doc before taking). Otherwise, we’re all for tossing some fresh ginger in a stir-fry or hot ginger tea.
The research is also young for this spice rack favorite, but intriguing. A small study of 69 adults with type 2 diabetes compared blood sugar levels in participants who took a daily dose if cinnamon to that of participants who took a daily placebo; the average blood sugar dropped for those consuming the cinnamon, and dropped more for those taking a higher dose of cinnamon. While more research is needed to say how much cinnamon is ideal, consuming a little extra throughout the day—added to yogurt, a latte, a smoothie, a bowl of oatmeal—certainly can’t hurt.
The good news: Happy hour is not off limits! But, alcohol can affect blood sugar in different ways than other carbs or sugars. Anyone taking insulin or medicines that cause low blood sugar should ask their diabetes care provider about how her cocktail of choice could affect her health. Otherwise, follow the American Cancer Society’s and American Heart Association standards—one drink a day for women, and up to two drinks for guys. And don’t forget, liquid calories count, too.
In general, less is more when it comes to sodium for diabetes, as too much sodium is linked to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and heart disease. But, it’s a controversial topic, because just how much less is still unclear: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends adults consume no more than 2300 mg of salt a day—and no more than 1500 mg per day for people with diabetes. Yet the ADA recommends no more than 2,300 mg per day unless you have hypertension, in which case you should talk to your doctor. Whichever guideline you’re following, ease up on the saltshaker and pick fresh, unpackaged whole foods when possible.
Jellies, Jams, Preserves, and Fruit Juices—Skip!
Don’t be fooled by any of these labeled “All natural,” “Real fruit,” or “Organic.” Jellies, jams, preserves, and fruit juices are usually chock-full of extra sugars, carbs, and calories with few or no nutrients. Plus, fiber is generally negligible, so these carbs can quickly send blood sugar levels through the roof. Pick whole fruits over these imposters, as they’re typically more nutrient-packed, and higher in fiber, which sends a “full” signal to your brain and slows how fast the broken down sugars get to the blood.